If you’re looking to become a faster swimmer, your first instinct might be to crank up the intensity of your routine pool sessions. After all, swimming harder will eventually translate to swimming faster. Right?
Actually, no, says Molly Balfe, a ASCA- and USAT-certified Nike masters swim coach.
“Technique is the thing that makes you faster,” she tells Men’s Journal.
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The way Balfe sees it, taking the time to slow down and finesse your form will help you move through the water more hydrodynamically. And that is what will make you speedier.
With this philosophy in mind, Balfe shares four go-to swim drills borrowed from the Swim Smooth methodology (which guides her coaching at Nike) and other schools of thought that she’s followed during her 15 years of coaching. These drills address some of the most common technique mistakes Balfe sees in the pool, and you don’t need any equipment to do ‘em—just a suit, goggles, and a details-matter mindset.
1. BUBBLE, BUBBLE, BREATHE
What It Trains: Rhythmic, bilateral breathing
Common Mistake It Addresses: Many newer swimmers—and some experienced ones, too—often struggle with feeling out of breath in the pool and assume that they need to work harder at swimming in order to overcome it, explains Balfe.
“But realistically, most folks who get in the water are plenty strong enough and have the cardiovascular strength and endurance to swim constantly for five minutes,” she says.
Struggling to stroke for five minutes straight? It’s not that you’re out of shape.
“There’s probably something that’s going wrong with your form, and there’s almost certainly something going wrong with your breathing.”
A common breathing mistake Balfe sees is athletes holding their breath as they swim. Doing so is akin to “having two balloons in your chest,” and the excess air can lift your upper body while sinking your legs. This non-linear positioning creates more resistance in the water, she says, and holding your breath also feels strange.
“If you think about telling someone to go out for a quick jog but hold their breath for most of it,” she says, “it’s not going to be comfortable.”
Instead, try to inhale and exhale at a steady rate as you stroke. This involves blowing air out as soon as you put your face back in the water after a breath. That way, all you have to do when you turn your head to breathe is inhale, explains Balfe. Another good tip is to breathe bilaterally from time to time. This can help even out imbalances that arise from favoring one side, which many swimmers tend to do. The “bubble, bubble, breathe” drill, which comes from Swim Smooth, focuses on both bilateral and rhythmic breathing.
How to Do It: As you swim freestyle (either during a warm-up or a pull set), repeat the mantra “bubble, bubble, breathe,” with each word corresponding to one arm stroke. Take a breath every third stroke.
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2. BALLET KICK
What It Trains: A strong, efficient kick that engages the glutes
Common Mistake It Addresses: When it comes to kicking, many folks—especially runners and cyclists—will mistakenly bend their knees a lot, says Balfe. A more efficient kick involves keeping your legs relatively straight, engaging your glutes, and driving the motion from your hips.
How To Do It: This drill, also from Swim Smooth, starts by placing your right arm on the wall and positioning your body perpendicular to the wall. From here, stand up tall and engage your core by pulling up the area where your belt buckle would be. Next, squeeze your glutes, extend your left leg, keep your ankles relaxed, and turn your left toes slightly in towards your right leg. Now, keeping the glutes engaged and your left leg relatively straight, kick your left leg, pointing your toes and driving the motion from your hip (not your knee).
Kick for 10 to 30 seconds, then switch sides and kick for 10 to 30 seconds with your right leg. Then push off the wall in streamline and kick underwater using the same technique. Kick as far as you can underwater until you have to take a breath. Finally, swim the rest of the 50 in regular freestyle, focusing on a strong, hip-driven kick.
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3. POSTURE PROGRESSION
What It Trains: Good head and spinal positioning
Common Mistake It Addresses: Many swimmers tend to look forward as they stroke, says Balfe, and this incorrect positioning can sink the lower body, making it more difficult to move through the water. Proper technique involves keeping the neck in line with the spine, engaging the core, and pressing down slightly with the chest to get your head in the optimal position. By doing so, you’ll reduce the amount of resistance that you have to swim through.
How To Do It: The following progression is a series of freestyle 4x50s with a specific focus for each 50. By the fourth 50, you should be incorporating all of these tips into your stroke.
1: Focus on engaging your core. Think about sending your tailbone straight down and pulling your belt buckle up. Your pelvis should be straight underneath you, not tilted.
2: Focus on neck positioning. Think about pushing your chin slightly back so that your neck and spine form one long, straight line.
3: Focus on head positioning. Press down slightly with the top of your chest so that your head naturally lowers in the water. Your goal is to press down enough so that just the crown of your head is above water; the rest should be submerged.
4: Focus on lengthening your spine as you continue to engage your core. Think about expanding your spine as much as you can and extending each vertebra from the base of your neck down to the bottom of your spine.
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4. DRY LAND TOE POINTS
What It Trains: Ankle flexibility
Common Mistake It Addresses: “Ankle flexion is a big part of what propels you forward,” explains Balfe. Subpar ankle flexibility can make it more difficult to activate your hips, which are responsible for rotating your body as you swim.
How To Do It: Sit down on the ground and extend your legs in front of your body. Flex both feet straight up towards the ceiling for 1 second, then point both feet straight out in front of you for 1 second. Continue this pattern for about 3 to 5 minutes; take a break and repeat. To make the drill harder, you can loop a towel around both feet and hold the ends for added resistance.